A style of politics long considered to be in decline is experiencing a sort of reprieve, even glimmers of a possible return.
The gray-robed center-left technocrats are once again a serious force, at the expense of both establishment conservatism that has prevailed in Western democracies for much of the 21st century, and right-wing populism that was born in reaction to the status quo.
This month alone, center-left parties have taken power in Norway and appear poised to do the same in Germany. They hold the White House, share power in Italy, and lead a newly credible opposition movement in authoritarian Hungary.
Calling it a comeback would be premature, analysts warn. The gains of the left center are uneven and fragile. And they may be due less to a wave of enthusiasm than to short-term political winds, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Canada, where the center-left faced a battle to retain power in Monday’s election, perhaps sums up this trend best. The forces driving the center-left around the world have turned the results of the Liberals’ polls from poor to poor – an apt metaphor for the movement’s outlook.
Yet even modest gains among Western democracies could give a long-struggling political wing the chance to redeem itself with voters.
And that would counterbalance a dominant trend of the past decade: the rise of ethno-nationalism and the strongman politics of the new populist right.
“For several years now, people have been writing about how the Social Democrats are going to disappear for good, and now they’re here, they’re the main party,” said Brett Meyer, who studies political trends at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, in reference to the sudden rise of the center-left in Germany.
“It was a huge surprise,” he added.
A test of Covid policy
If Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, retains his post, it could be due in large part to the political changes brought about by the pandemic.
But a few factors pointing to broader trends have since narrowed the race.
Trudeau was expected to lose his support for the left-wing New Democratic Party. But this party, after years of growth amid a global polarization towards the left and right margins, has stagnated in its rise. It fits with voters around the world looking to establishment parties in response to the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Two political scientists, James Bisbee and Dan Honig, identified this shift by analyzing dozens of primaries and races. The pandemic, they found, has boosted traditional candidates, at the expense of political outsiders, by 2 to 15 sometimes decisive percentage points. They call this effect a “flight to safety”.
Other research suggests that the nature of a pandemic leads voters to seek strong institutions, forceful government actions, and social unity in response.
These preferences naturally favor the agendas of left-wing parties. Perhaps that is why, even as Canadians express weariness towards Mr. Trudeau and disapprove of some of his choices, they remain drawn to the policies his party represents.
But perhaps Trudeau’s luckiest move is how the pandemic is dividing the political right.
In the 2010s, right-wing coalitions largely united on identity issues such as immigration. But issues related to the pandemic – whether to impose vaccines, when to impose lockdowns, how forcefully to intervene in the economy – have separated moderates from the militant base.
The Conservative Party of Canada, led by Erin O’Toole, has turned left on climate and social issues. But Mr O’Toole’s ambiguity on pandemic issues could have allowed the People’s Anti-Vaccine Party to siphon votes. And that has opened him up to attacks from the left, with Mr. Trudeau daring him to disown anti-containment activists.
Polls around the world also show unbalanced support for immunization mandates, greater social spending and other pandemic policies that fit the agendas of the left better than the right – and which left-wing parties can embrace. safely without risking backlash from their base.
Canada is representative in another way, experts say. This shows that while the pandemic may give aid to the center-left, it is not still enough to ensure victory. Although this year’s Dutch elections saw centrist and leftist gains, the center-right remains firmly in power in the Netherlands. And polls in France suggest next year’s elections will be split between incumbent centrist president and far-right Marine Le Pen. The center-left, which was virtually wiped out in 2017, is seen as unlikely to recover quickly.
“Can you say that the period of the last 18 months is one of social democratic renewal? Pippa Norris, party politics specialist at Harvard University, said. “Well, it depends on the election you are considering. “
While such a trend may become clear in hindsight, she added, for now, “What we have is realignment and volatility.”
The populist display
This realignment takes at least one clear form. The once formidable right-wing populist wave is currently at a standstill – and may even be slightly reversing.
The rise of the movement has slowed since late 2018, when its leaders faced a series of setbacks in Europe and the Americas. Its challenges have since deepened.
Half of Europe’s right-wing populist parties have seen their support decline under the pandemic, albeit often in modest ways, according to a study by Case Mudde and Jakub Wondreys of the University of Georgia. Only one in six received support.
“It is possible that Covid-19 has exposed the soft underbelly of populist politics,” Vittorio Bufacchi, an academic at University College Cork, wrote last year.
Populists who have engaged in anti-containment and anti-vaccine sentiments have suffered the most in the polls, such as Donald J. Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Most populists initially challenged their anti-institutional and anti-expert brands, pushing for forceful government intervention and deference to scientists, Dr Meyer found. It was another sign of favorable circumstances for leftist politics.
But many have since regained shape. Populists generally rely on mistrust of institutions and social division to govern, which makes these habits difficult to break.
Right-wing populist governments in Poland, Hungary and Slovenia face falling poll numbers and rising opposition movements, often led by the center-left.
Populists do not fare much better in opposition. Ms Le Pen’s far-right party suffered setbacks in France’s regional elections this summer. The alternative for Germany, once seen as the vanguard of the new extreme right, has remained stuck or demoted in the polls. After defending anti-foreclosure sentiment, he suffered losses even in his home country, Saxony.
It is also a challenge for the center-right parties. For much of the 2010s, they were successful in co-opting nationalist sentiment. But it was easier when questions of identity dominated politics. He’s become a political albatross, at least for now.
The flight to safety
The center-left has benefited from all of these trends, but it’s unclear how long it will continue, according to academics.
“There are short-term forces that always move parties up and down,” Dr Norris said.
The conditions that led to the collapse of establishment parties over the past decades still stand, she added. This remains an era of unstable coalitions and shifting electorates, which only momentarily favor the brand of politics it almost killed before.
“If the center-left parties capitalize on this, which is plausible given the pandemic and the government’s role in it,” she said, “they cannot necessarily consolidate this. “
“Can you win on this?” You can. But can you maintain it?